Catastrophic flooding expected in California: series of storms continues and has already killed at least 19 people

Eva Deschamps / January 14, 2023

Central California is at risk of "catastrophic flooding" this weekend, according to meteorologists, as an eighth consecutive storm hits soaked soils unable to absorb new rainfall. The most populous state in the United States has been hit for three weeks by rainfall approaching historical records. Between floods, landslides, extensive power outages and falling trees, this series of storms has killed at least 19 people, according to authorities.
 
A new low-pressure system hit California on Friday and authorities in the central part of the state are particularly worried. Forecasts indicate that the Monterey Peninsula could be cut off from the world due to rising water, and the entire city of Salinas, home to 160,000 people, could be flooded.
 
The entire lower Salinas Valley will experience catastrophic flooding," the U.S. Weather Service (NWS) warned. "The entire city of Salinas is at risk of flooding. Most of Castroville will be flooded. All roads near the Salinas River will be flooded and impassable," and more than 36,000 acres of farmland are expected to be under water, it added.
 
The Salinas River, already swollen by weeks of torrential rains, was expected to reach its maximum level Friday, breaking its banks and causing flooding that could last until Sunday. Kelley O'Connell, a resident of the affected area, is concerned after a levee broke near her home. "If they release the water from the dams or if it rains more, we're only a field away," she told the San Francisco Chronicle, while protecting her home with sandbags.
 
Several areas in the region are under evacuation orders, and the Monterey Peninsula could be cut off if roads are cut off by the floodwaters. "Residents on the peninsula and in the Salinas area should expect to be isolated for two to three days," Monterey County officials warned earlier this week.
 
The Monterey Peninsula could become an island" because of the flooding, warned local sheriff Tina Nieto, asking residents to prepare to avoid being trapped by the flooding. "This is a slow-moving event" and not all locations will be affected at the same time, she explained.
 
John Guru, a local resident, took no chances. He stored four days' worth of groceries in his house and two days in his car in case he was trapped on the road. "I don't know how bad it can get," he told the Monterey Herald.
 
A series of storms have hit California in recent weeks. The lulls are short-lived and barely give authorities time to clean up the damage before the next deluge. Hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses have been without power at various times.
 
And it's not over, according to meteorologists. "The current unstable weather in the western part of the country ... unfortunately continues this weekend, with two more rounds of heavy precipitation expected," warned the NWS. In the mountains, this precipitation translates into significant snowfall, with more than a meter expected over the weekend in the Sierra Nevada. This could make travel dangerous or impossible. 
  
At least 19 people have died since the beginning of this black series. Drivers have been found in their cars trapped by the floods, people have been hit by falling trees, a couple was killed by a landslide and bodies have been washed away by the floods.
 
California is used to extreme weather, and winter storms are common. Such a string of deluge events, however, is unusual. While it is difficult to make a direct link between these serial storms and climate change, scientists regularly explain that warming increases the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.
 
The heavy rains of the past few weeks, however, will not be enough to end the drought that has hit the western U.S. state hard for two decades. "A few weeks of storms is not enough given the drought in California, but it's certainly welcome," Jay Lund, director of the University of California at Davis, told the San Francisco Chronicle. Experts say several winters of above-normal precipitation would be needed to offset the drought of recent years.
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